Friday, October 28, 2005

Proofs that Infinitely Regress And Slippery Slopes that are Actually Bluffs

Proof and Denial
This month one of the theist/atheist dialogs on the web is considering the topic of proof. Looking at peoples' responses to various proofs, the most striking effect of "proof" in the real world is often peoples' response to it: denial. There is no such thing as logic or proof "compelling" people to believe anything at all; people on any side of any conceivable disagreement can vouch for that.

Arguments that Infinitely Regress
In the case of "proof" when relating to the things of God, one common maneuver is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof", which is simply a detour onto what is necessarily an infinitely regressing argument. If a claim is labeled "extraordinary" then the proof must be extraordinary; but then that extraordinary proof itself becomes a claim which in turn requires extraordinary proof of its own, and the cycle continues. Notice that both ways out of this infinitely regressing argument are effectively blocked: if the next claim in the chain is "extraordinary" then the argument continues with need for further extraordinary support of the new claim; if the next claim in the chain is ordinary then, no matter how plausible, well-supported, and obvious it is, it can be swept away with simply not being "extraordinary" enough. The "extraordinary proof" method is therefore impossible to satisfy, leading either to a further extraordinary claim (in which case further regress) or to an ordinary claim (in which case the disputer simply asserts victory and dissatisfaction no matter how strong the plain old ordinary evidence). The "extraordinary proof" request is therefore inherently impossible to satisfy. It amounts to saying "I will not accept any argument for something extraordinary." Is it really logical that nothing extraordinary should ever happen, or should only be accepted on the basis of an infinite chain of extraordinary support?

Many of us do not actually see the claim of God's existence as anything extraordinary, given how obvious it is that there is a first cause and how likely it is, given the results, that the first cause is purposeful and intelligent. It is likely enough that everything you see about you in the natural world every day is proof of God's existence.

But, other than that, how exactly would someone prove that God exists? For that, God's intervention would count -- maybe some miracles. Not just "lucky" things, but the blind being healed, the lame walking, the deaf hearing. There are lots of miracles in the historical record, some with plenty of witnesses around. But those are extraordinary ...

But what if we wanted to know not just that God existed, but wanted to know God's mind? Even Einstein famously longed to know the mind of God. What if we wanted to hear him talk and see how he would approach life among us? For that, God could manifest himself among us, even incarnate among us if he chose to. Obviously Christianity claims that, in Jesus, God has done just that. To back up that extraordinary claim of who Jesus is, there is much extraordinary proof, more miracles than for any other religious figure in the history of the world including Moses and Elijah, and a proof unrivalled by any religious leader before or since: his own resurrection from the dead. But, then again, that's extraordinary ...

Of course, if God were to do something to catch our attention it would have to be extraordinary. It's no use complaining that we asked for something extraordinary but now that it's happened we won't believe it because it's extraordinary.

The Slippery Slope Is Actually A Big Bluff
The most common argument I have heard against believing that Jesus actually did the things his followers -- and enemies (see the Talmud) -- said that he did is that it is a "slippery slope". Oh what other things we would have to believe based on that level of proof! The worldview would disintegrate into incoherence and superstition! Actually, it would not. I would like to challenge someone to bring forward a claim that I would have to accept on the same grounds as accepting Jesus' miracles and resurrection:
  • multiple eyewitnesses with their identities known and recorded;
  • multiple same-century documents discussing the events in letters and biography (or "hagiography" if you prefer);
  • along with the identities of witnesses, extended descriptions of the events in question with details of events;
  • corroborating information from hostile sources (comparable to the Talmuld's references to Jesus as a sorcerer);
  • persistent belief in the reality of the event amongst a significant number of witnesses;
  • next-generation documents stating that the witnesses of certain events and the beneficiaries of miracles had survived to their own day and related the same accounts;
  • and the extraordinary events having changed their lives so much that they devoted their entire lives to it, to the point of death.

The point? There is no slippery slope. It is very easy to believe the early Christian accounts of extraordinary things based on their incomparably high level of plain historical support for these extraordinary things. Such a belief does not lead irrevocably down some slippery slope to superstition. That argument is a bluff. Unless someone can meet the criteria above, I'd say that I'd called the bluff.

The Proof Is In
Jesus' empty tomb is God's proof to us that our own tombs will be empty on the last day. But what proof is ever undeniable? It is one thing to say that the mere fact that "it is possible to deny it" provides a ledge to stand on; it is another thing to say that that is a good position that results from good logic.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

On the Atonement

Restoring Fellowship With God
Requirements: causing us to despise evil, humbling us, leading us to trust in God, cleansing us from the stain of past sin, cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin, establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God, planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us, satisfying both justice and mercy, and making us children of God. God's goodness is the foundation for our restoration, which God accomplished in the Word of God becoming man as Jesus; his life, death, and resurrection; his ascension; and his sending of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes focusing on one area of the atonement leads to neglect in another area, even to criticizing the importance of the big picture. But it is no legitimate complaint to target a theory that explains one part of the atonement and mention that it does not explain all of it; it was probably never intended to. For example, some have criticized the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, it is clear that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address all the points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It complements other theories, it does not compete with them. Athanasius, writing in On the Incarnation of the Word of God, refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement and does not confine himself to an either/or view of atonement theories.

Why A Sacrifice Instead of Simple Forgiveness?
When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged. While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious. And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave. Now, shrugging and forgiving may be fine for a small and accidental thing. But there is a lot worse going on in this world than small and accidental things, and a notable percentage of people are involved at least occasionally in these larger and more deliberate wrongs.

Given that God has the power to heal all the harm done and restore peace and cleanness to all the souls (both the wrongdoer and the wronged), it would be arbitrary if God chose a line of badness and said "beyond this, I will not forgive." But what if God opens his power for all people who turn to him, not just those who were not that bad in the first place? (Some who read this may not suspect much wrong within their own souls, so I write as to those who consider "the worst of sinners" to be someone else. Those of us who follow the example of Paul should be ready to consider ourselves as the worst of sinners, not looking down on anyone else as worse than ourselves, as Paul said of himself.) If God only forgave those who were not so bad in the first place, then how could we escape the view that he saved those who were good enough? How could we deny that they owed their forgiveness in part to their own goodness – or worse, to their superiority over those who were lost – as much as to God’s mercy? But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would justice be satisfied? What is the worst punishment that justice can ask? There is no crime for which justice may ask a worse punishment than death, especially the slow, painful, brutal death of the cross. Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses. In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful. In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid. In this way our atonement increases the disgust for wrongdoing, rather than decreasing it, in those who understand their forgiveness.

Why Sacrifice Jesus? Why Sacrifice the Son of God?
A sacrifice would need to be someone sinless; otherwise we could never be certain that this person did not simply pay for his own crimes. Notice also that the atonement would leave us in the unique debt of the one who atoned for us, as much to that one as to God. It is fitting that the payment should be taken on by God himself. If our debt had not been taken by God himself, then we would have had cause to honor another as much as God, and cause to doubt God’s love of us, if he had created us but left it to someone else to redeem us. In providing for all wrongdoers, our atonement makes plain that we are indebted to God’s goodness rather than our own. It demolishes boasting about our own goodness and restores us to humility; all alike are in need of mercy. And in God’s providing atonement himself, our atonement restores our trust in God rather than sending us to look elsewhere for our redemption.

Much of this article was originally published on the CADRE Comments blog as part of a serial article response to Michael Martin's article, "Why The Resurrection Is Initially Improbable", Philo Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1998. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is available here.

Monday, October 24, 2005

What do God's people love?

It's strange how many Bible studies, theme studies, and word studies I've done, but never before have I searched the Scriptures to track down the answer to this question: what are God's children taught to love? For one, the short answer is very familiar: love of God and neighbor. For another, suspicions of sentimentalism generally put a damper on an inquiry like this. And again we often approach "love" with the heart but not the mind, soul, or strength, leaving a sentimentalism that does not deserve enthusiasm and lacks enough depth for studying. But since "what we love" motivates our steps, guides our reason, steers our morality, and adds joy to our lives, it's worth the risk of a topic that some would view with suspicion.

The main two loves taught in the Scriptures, of course, are love of God and neighbor, which top the list. The others became clear as patterns while doing word studies on "love" and "delight" in the Scripture:
  • Love of God;

  • Love of neighbor;

  • Love of immigrants and foreign nationals;

  • Love of God's salvation;

  • Love of God's justice;

  • Love of God's law and his commandments;

  • Love of wisdom, instruction, and knowledge;

  • Love of truth and of the truthful witness;

  • Love of purity of heart;

  • Love of peace;

  • Love of mercy;

  • Love of wife, husband, brothers, children;

  • Love of fellow-believers;

  • Love of approaching God;

  • Love of Christ's appearing.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Is legalism morally bankrupt?

Legalism is the insistence on judging spirituality on the basis of keeping moral laws -- usually a particular group of moral laws elevated to "gatekeeper" status for acceptance or membership in a group. Over time I've seen a number of different "gatekeeper" lists of rules. It's tempting to break them down into man-made rules (against smoking, alcohol, caffeine, dancing, card-playing) versus God-made rules (against murder, adultery, lying, stealing). Oddly, the religious groups with "gatekeeper" rules often emphasize the man-made rules, perhaps thinking that the God-made rules aren't very distinctive or don't genuinely guarantee a holy lifestyle. But the reason I call legalism morally bankrupt goes beyond the emphasis on man-made rules to the de facto unseating of the greatest laws: to love God and neighbor.

Legalism is an attempt to control sin and to justify people who keep the list -- but "the list" never seems to have God's own priorities at the top, so it never works on either count. It troubles tender consciences over laws that are frequently man-made, while offering false security to an angry or loveless soul that manages to toe the line. Any satisfaction it gives is misleading at best.

There are different kinds of people in the world. Some love God. Others love to be in control. Both types may be drawn to religion, but for very different reasons. It becomes a problem when the "love control" group actually succeeds in being in control within a religious setting. This is an inherent risk since the "love God" group does not primarily seek control. This was a problem in Jesus' day to the extent that his main opponents were the "most religious" of the day.

The anti-Christian crowd has it wrong in imagining that it is Christianity's aim to force others to bow to its will. But we may miss the fact that people can use religion to legitimize their own overly controlling tendencies, and that such people are sometimes drawn to religion for the opportunities it affords. When we do not take an honest look at the problem, we allow it to happen more often than it should. At the worst of times it becomes nearly a co-dependent situation. The "love God" crowd may want someone else to tell them what to do about their love of God while at the same time (forgive me) having a ready-made excuse for being a bit lazy about leadership. The "love control" crowd gets to tell the "love God" crowd what to do and have all the appearance of holiness whether or not they kindle their love of God and neighbor.

What to do about it? Churches should seek to develop leaderhip amongst people who plainly love God and neighbor and who lead well as evidenced by order in their own families. If you have graciously passed up several invitations to serve at your church -- not being interested in control -- please accept the next invitation to serve. If you have put yourself forward for numerous opportunities to take things in hand, ask yourself whether this has taken a toll on your love of God and neighbor, and let go of the excess in order to take control of one more thing: the time to renew yourself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Yes! Yes! Yes! We go to the World Series!

For the first time in Houston's history, we're going to the baseball world series. I've been waiting for this since the days of Nolan Ryan, Joaquin Andujar, and Jose "Astros have Cruz control" Cruz. That team, for all its excellence, never made it all the way. This year's team has reached a new height.

All the best to them as they move on to the World Series. Go Astros!

Christian Carnival at Sven's blog this week

Hi all

Sven -- the same who brought us the denomination and theology quizzes that were all the rage a few months back -- is hosting the Carnival this week. My favorites from this week were Papercut Theology's post on cross-cultural explanations of atonement, Mother-Lode's thoughts on the tower of Babel and the soul's native language, and a light piece from Pastor Mark about running the song Amazing Grace through a translator forwards and backwards with some insightful and humorous results.

Thanks also to Sven for his kind words on my entry this week.

Does the Athanasian Creed Contain a Mistake?

[T]heology -- an enterprise that, despite the oftentimes homicidal urgency Christians attach to it, has yet to save anybody. What saves us is Jesus. -- R.F. Capon, sometime blacksheep of Christian pastoring and publishing, in The Parables of the Kingdom

Does the Athanasian Creed Contain A Mistake?
Depending on your background, your answer could range from "the what?" or "who cares?" to "just the filioque clause" or "if you claim there's a mistake in that, you're anathema." After all, there's a part of the Athanasian Creed which says plainly at the beginning, "Whoever does not keep this faith pure in all points will certainly perish forever." Then there's the part at the end which says "This [what it says] is the true Christian faith. Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved." In between are a series of comments on the Father, Son, and Spirit, and on the nature of Christ.

I have comparatively few objections to the filling inside the Creed -- the stuff between the beginning and the end of the creed may be a bit plodding but it doesn't go off the deep end. I think the Creed's biggest mistake is this: saying that whoever does not subscribe to every bullet will certainly perish forever and cannot be saved. My first reaction is, "Where does someone get off saying that?" Can we be plain that I'm not advocating bad theology, opposing formal confessions of faith, or encouraging complacency about whether we understand our faith? But encouraging diligence in learning has gone too far if we threaten non-salvation to those who just don't get it. Historically, I would be surprised if even a small portion of the original audiences of Paul's letters would have understood what was being said in that creed. But more importantly, Jesus and the authors of the books of the Bible do not speak as if we are saved by the doctrinal purity of our Trinitarian views and Christology, but by Christ. Christology is an attempt to understand Christ, but it has often been dominated by philosophical questions about his nature. If someone can explain dual natures and hypostatic unions but does not include "Lord and Savior", he has missed everything. If someone knows Jesus as "Lord and Savior" but has never heard the phrase "hypostatic union", they have the better understanding.

People are slow to criticize the Athanasian Creed, first because it has much valuable content, and second because of the grim and dire pronouncements it contains against anyone who criticizes it. But it mistakes head-knowledge for faith. For all the valuable exposition of doctrines it contains, does anyone here truly think that head-knowledge of perfect purity is the true Christian faith?

If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (Romans 11:9-11)

It may not be too hard to reconcile with Scripture the Athanasian Creed's statements about God, but it is difficult to reconcile with Scripture the Athanasian Creed's claims about itself and about the role of doctrinal purity in salvation.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Omnipotence, Weakness, and the Cross of Christ

"The weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." -- I Cor 1:25

Every school of theology starts somewhere. Some schools of theology begin with God's omnimax characteristics as their most basic foundation: Omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence. It's assumed that, from there, someone can logically determine what should be known about God.

This approach eventually runs up against the cross of Christ, which neither omnipotence nor omniscience nor omnipresence could ever have predicted. God does not present himself to us in omnipotence but in weakness. Would a theological school do better to have a foundation of God's omnipotence or a foundation of God's weakness as shown in the cross of Christ?

Paul lays out his vision of the good news: "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor 2:2), and "No one can lay any foundation other than that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ." (I Cor 3:11).

To begin with anything other than Jesus is to miss God's cornerstone, Christ, who is "a stone that causes men to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." It is much, much more "sensible" to follow God's omnipotent strength by a path of logic, and to base our ideas of God on his sovereign power. The problem is basic: that is not the thing upon which God bases his relationship to us; rather the cornerstone of our relationship with God is Christ's weakness, even his suffering and death.

What, would I do away with teaching God's omnipotence? Not at all, but I would put it in its place. When omnipotence did not suit God's purpose, he cast it aside in favor of the weakness of the cross. Neither did he make the fact that he could overwhelm us the foundation of his relationship with us. It is very tempting to make God's awesome power the foundation of our relationship with him, his sovereignty the foundation of our thoughts. But God instead chose to approach us in love and humility and weakness, considering these to be greater. A theological school with a foundation of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence may manage to appear very wise. But one that has a foundation of the cross of Christ understands that God approaches us through Christ; that omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence are not actually God's greatest attributes; that God's power just as logically leads to despair as to hope, and that God's power only leads to hope if it is directed by his love; that therefore God's greatest attribute is love.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Martin Luther and the Kaiser's Wife

Luther on interpreting Scripture:
The natural speech is the Kaiser's wife, and it is to be preferred to all subtle, sharp, and sophistic interpretations. One must not depart from it unless one is compelled do to so by a clear article of faith, or else not one letter of Scripture can be maintained against the spiritual jugglers. -- Weimar Ausgabe, 18, 180

For all the books that have been written about interpreting Scripture, you would think it must be a complicated thing. Many people still seem to have missed the obvious thing that Luther addressed: if the writing is plain exposition, the words should stand at face value with their normal meanings. Any other interpretation than that, for plain exposition, is necessarily a misinterpretation. Period.

So why all the juggling? It's true that in some types of writing (symbolic prophecies, for example) the words were never intended as plain speech and it would be a mistake to take them as such. But most doctrines are not based on symbolic prophecies but on plain speech, such as letters to a congregation or an individual; it is a mistake to interpret these words as anything but plain speech.

The type of theologians which Luther called "spiritual jugglers" must quickly claim that it's not all that simple that it should mean what it says. It's common enough to hear jugglers belittle as "simplistic" any suggestion that lay Christians can understand such things as "plain speech." But consider the following points:
  • Many doctrines are based on letters written to explain and advise, often written to the laity or those who had no specialized training;
  • Many doctrines are based on explanations originally given to uneducated fishermen;
  • Jesus said that the understanding of the things of God was hidden from the wise and learned and given to little children.

Considering any one of these points raises the question whether the "special interpretations" are justified, and whether it is really right to be quite so quick to scorn simplicity and the plain honest reading of the text. Yet in some circles the special interpretations, so blatantly against the text, are jealously guarded, and too many people are intimidated at the thought of being called "simple and unlearned" or worse that they back away from what the text obviously says and isntead make themselves fools by trying to appear wise, and by "reinterpreting" make themselves unable to understand a text that is plain and clear.

Some people, still determined to argue against "plain speech", will pretend that it doesn't allow for common allusions to literature or figures of speech such as calling a follower a sheep, and pretend that the use of an allusion or figure of speech catapults a passage into an obscure realm where only a specialist may properly understand it. Contrary to this, readers are not generally caused difficulty by allusions or figures of speech. This should rightly raise suspicion of the specialist who can "see" that it does not mean what it says. The "no plain words" approach requires (or gives license for) someone to insert his own views contrary to the meaning of the text, putting words in God's mouth, as it were, and claiming them as the originals. "Did God really say...?" is the first line of attack against the plain words; we've all heard it before (Genesis 3:1). But it's high time that the jugglers were confronted about their game.

Here are a few examples of texts that various groups try to juggle so as to avoid what the plain words say:

  • "In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33) is unpopular with the "name it and claim it" / victorious life crowd.
  • "Then he will say to those on is left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" (Matthew 25:41) is unpopular with universalists.
  • "They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away." (Luke 8:14) is unpopular with the "once saved, always saved" camp.
  • "In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Crist, in accordance with his pleasure and will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves." (Ephesians 1:4-6; see also the surrounding text) is unpopular with those who build theologies opposed to all understandings of predestination.
  • "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) is unpopular with works-righteousness folks.
  • "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" is unpopular with some of the faith-righteousness folks.
  • "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) is unpopular with those who teach that God does not want all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.
  • "This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance -- and for this we labor and strive -- that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (I Timothy 4:9-10) is unpopular with the limited-atonement camp.

I haven't exhausted the list and I hope I haven't missed anybody's favorite. The point remains: it is not Scripture that needs changing, but the lens through which we decide which parts we're willing to accept.

Early in his thoughts, Luther found himself rankled by certain passages that did not seem to fit with others according to the theological lens he was using. He struggled with the relationship between faith and works, between predestination and God's will to save all people. Later, in his more developed theology, he came to value the plain word wherever it went. Critics say that this leads to contradictions, by which they imply that the Bible itself is (on their view) contradictory. But many other "flaw-free" theologies have what can be considered a far greater flaw: they "argue with the Kaiser's wife" and dispute with the Bible itself. This is particularly tragic in groups which claim the Bible to be the source of their doctrines; when certain passages are swept under the rug it's plain that the Bible is not actually given full honor. Luther reasoned that God's thoughts were higher than our thoughts, and that we had no right to tinker with the words on the page since God knows how to explain himself to us better than we know.

His next comment sums up the only approach to Scripture that can possibly find all the depths which God intended:

"If you contend that the Scripture contradicts itself, go manufacture your own reconciliation. I will stay with the author of Scripture."

It's easy to find fault with Luther; he had many faults. I'm in no position to throw the first stone. But his legacy, such as it is, is for people to be willing to follow the Word of God wherever it goes, and to change the lens through which they interpret Scripture rather than changing Scripture. In light of this, I would want this amendment to Luther's "Kaiser's Wife" example:

The natural speech is the Kaiser's wife, and it is to be preferred to all subtle, sharp, and sophistic interpretations. One must not depart from it, or else not one letter of Scripture can be maintained against the Spiritual jugglers.

These days the "Kaiser's wife" with which people dare not argue is, sadly, not Scripture but the watchdogs of certain self-proclaimed orthodoxies. Here's a text we would do well to take at face value: to fear God rather than men. It is a marvel that so many are not at all ashamed to speak so boldly against what Scripture says so plainly, and more of a marvel still that people have gotten away with it for so long.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Across religions and cultures: Jesus as the shape of hope

It is unpopular outside of Christian circles to mention Jesus' claims, "I am the light of the world," or "I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Such statements are quickly criticized, accused of a false exclusivism. Those who believe Jesus (aka Christians) of course contest the "false" part, but have not always got around to the next phase of the conversation: that Christ is not "exclusive" in the sense typically meant.

Jesus' Meta-Religious Claims
Consider, for a moment, Buddhists seeking enlightenment, or Taoists seeking the Way, or philosophers seeking truth. Noble, lofty goals all of them, and good quests. It is a bedrock-level misunderstanding to imagine that Jesus disparages these quests. "I am the light" shows Christ as the source of light behind that "enlightenment" which the Buddhists seek. "I am the way" shows Christ as that way which the Taoists seek. "I am the truth," he says to those who look for it. This hardly scratches the surface, but already we need to stop and look at the subject of syncretism (with all the good and bad that lurk behind that approach). After that, we'll return to Jesus' meta-religious claims.

Can Syncretism Solve the Problem?
Syncretism, the mixing and/or blending of religious beliefs, has a long and distinguished history filled with both good and bad. First the good side. Syncretism tends to acknowledge the common streams which flow through all of those religions which tend towards good: love, mercy, truth, strength, courage, humility, self-control, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and more. Syncretism acknowledges that there is, after all, one truth. Has anything ever been truer than that ultimate truth must belong to all people on earth simply because of the nature of reality? Ultimate good must belong to all people on earth for the same reason. Syncretism acknowledges these things. Syncretism also tends to avoid partisanship, or the silly notion that we must deny the existence of mere decency in other religions.

On the other hand, syncretism has not always had what you would call rigorous standards of truth, honesty, or even justice to the views being discussed. Important distinctions are frequently swept under the rug. Genuine differences are either welded together awkwardly or lopped off entirely with a weak pretense that, if it did not fit, it must not have really mattered. Syncretism does not always deal fairly with the very beliefs that are supposedly "cherished" under its inclusive wings. It threatens a homogenized religion which may be either an unrecognizable hybrid of the strong features of different religions, or a watered-down well-wishers' club if the strong features are eliminated. The watered-down version is inoffensive of course, but "inoffensive" is not exactly high praise. It is difficult to see how anyone could seek truth or gain love from its pursuit. It is more difficult still to see why anyone would want to follow in the first place. It becomes debatable whether enough remains to merit the name "religion" because, as much as detractors of "organized" religion denounce the organization, it is the organization of coherent beliefs on the subject that cause it to be called by the name "religion". After syncretism, what is left is often compared to a buffet in which people can take the candy of any system they choose, avoid the bread and butter, and come out ill-fed, not having experienced any religion at all adequately, but self-congratulatory and appearing very ecumenical all the same.

Syncretism seeks to preserve what is good from all sources, but it tends toward the insistence that all is good everywhere. This leads to logical inconsistencies to say the least. The way out of syncretism is to acknowledge that some things actually don't work together, and take the hard road to acknowledging differences, seeing which things are actually closer to the truth, which things are actually better. When necessary -- and it does become necessary -- the hard road includes figuring out and acknowledging when things are false or harmful, wrong or evil.

Is the Alternative Enmity?
I've already mentioned that it becomes necessary to take the hard road, actually figuring out and acknowledging when things are false, harmful, wrong, or evil. But just as syncretism can be overdone, so can faultfinding. If the focus becomes seeking out whatever is false and wrong, whatever is harmful or evil, the harm goes beyond just bringing out the worst in ourselves and in our hapless targets. We lose sight of the desire for God or for goodness which springs up in each religion; we find ourselves attacking what should have been our starting point. Once the starting point is demolished, we find we have neither common ground nor good will with which to rebuild, and besides have left integrity behind by attacking that in which there was good. In extreme cases, it seems as if the goal becomes to justify one's own beliefs by faultfinding someone else's with the intent of locating evil; when it goes to that extent, then good reason has been left behind.

What is worshipped as Unknown
When the apostle Paul spoke to pagan idol-worshippers, he could have taken Isaiah's path when Isaiah strongly jibed at his fellow Hebrews for falling into idolatry. But the Hebrews had known better; Paul's listeners had not. The ancient Greeks' religion was about as false as it comes, and had a good share of harmful aspects if Paul had sought to say so. But he was not so much interested in attacking their beliefs as in announcing Christ. Paul brought good news. It was not a game to score points at the expense of opponents, it was a chance to see people born again into a living hope by the resurrection of Christ. And so Paul, facing idol-worshippers, began with gentleness and respect: "I see that you are in every way very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22-23)

When it comes to other faiths, have we walked around and looked carefully at their objects of worship? If not, then we have not done our homework, have not followed Paul's example, and have no right to expect the same kind of reception of the message.

Does Jesus Transcend Religion?
In the sense that Jesus is Ultimate Truth, he transcends religion. In the sense that Christianity is following Jesus Christ, it also transcends religion. If you have ever listened to the nickel-and-dime internet skeptics, the less educated will trot out endless claims of how Christianity "borrowed" from every other religion on the planet. The timelines and comparisons don't really work out to plagiary, but the discussion should not end there. It really is not a stretch to notice Christ fulfilling the hopes of other religions. I've sketched out in some detail how Christ fulfilled the Messianic expectations of Judaism. We'll take a quick overview of how Christ fulfills the expectations of some other religions as well.

There are some religions like Taoism where I am not inclined to name anything particularly "false" about it. I would explain Christ to a Taoist very simply: he is that ancient path which you seek, the goodness beyond mere morality. He is that self-existent way. Read what he said, see for yourself. "Follow me," he says. (I might also give them a copy of: Christ, The Eternal Tao, an Eastern Orthodox view of the Tao Te Ching as a preparation for Christ.)

Likewise, to a Buddhist, I would invite simply: You are looking for "enlightenment" but do you know how to get there or how to explain it or how to achieve it? Do you understand what the light is? Christ is the light of the world; if you want enlightenment, listen to him and he will tell you what it is and how to get there. (If he were in a joking mood and familiar with Western culture, I'd suggest that Buddhists sometimes fake enlightenment like Charismatics sometimes fake speaking in tongues, and for much the same reasons.) I might also mention that "right thought, right action, right purpose" and so forth of Buddhism are ill-defined in practice, and Christ can explain those: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Christ would never ask someone to turn away from the right path; he claims to be that right path.

To a Hindu I would say: You want to be reincarnated to be "born again" and purify yourself. But what is made new with physical rebirth is only the body; reincarnation of the body would do no good. It is the Spirit that must be born again. Flesh gives birth to flesh and Spirit gives birth to Spirit; you must be born of the Spirit of God. And I'd make sure they started with the Gospel of John, then show them the Sermon on the Mount which Gandhi praised so highly.

Now, again, there's something about brevity that's nearly as bad as syncretism: I can't possibly do justice to someone else's beliefs in roughly 100 words or less. I doubt I could do my own beliefs full justice in that space. These are simply conversation-starters that have grown from my own efforts to "walk around and look carefully at the objects of worship" before proclaiming Christ. I don't claim that these are the best conversation-starters possible; maybe your own explorations will give you better than these. But I am certain that this is good ground to explore.

Is Christ Exclusive?
In the sense that Ultimate Truth is for everyone, and the Creator of all things is necessarily Lord of all, Christ is all-inclusive. Every glimmer of truth and goodness in other religions points back to Christ. We say this because Christ is the eternal, unchanging one that all are seeking. In the sense that Christ is the only one for the whole world, and the only one who can save from death: yes, that is exclusive. But we are carelessly antagonistic or lazy if we do not study the hopes of mankind, especially as organized into world religions, and do better than "you are wrong" which is not entirely right; the truth we proclaim is "Christ fulfills your hopes."

After the Earthquake: Helping Pakistan

I've been looking for constructive ways to help Pakistan with their recovery efforts. I don't know what earthquakes are like but I do know what natural disasters are like, and my heart goes out to the parents trying to dig their children out of the rubble of their schools, or find water to keep them alive.

Houston, home to roughly 80,000 Pakistanis, has had some appeals for help on the local news from the Pakistani community. Not surprisingly, some of their recommended charities are Islamic charities or the UN charities. Islamic charities have a bad reputation, and the U.N. has not exactly earned my full trust either. The American Red Cross has a somewhat better reputation; in Muslim countries, that's the Red Crescent and I am still trying to find information on whether their presence and helpfulness justifies a contribution. If finding the best charities requires thought for relief in the U.S., then ever so much more so in Pakistan.

I've put out some inquiries to military bloggers overseas to see if I can find out who, exactly, is actually on the ground right now putting food and water in the hands of people who need it. I'll update with anything I find out.

Note: No, I don't delude myself that Pakistan is really our ally; we bought the allegiance and I remember it well. But
1) I hate to see people struggling like that;
2) When it was the U.S. facing a disaster, I would have been glad to have them show concern by helping any way they could; and we're supposed to do to others what we would have them do for us;
3) Showing Christ's love may open the door to giving them real hope.

I know a certain percentage of them would gladly kill me. But whose image do we reflect? Those who hate us, or him who loves us?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

"We have left everything to follow you"

Peter said to Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you." (Mark 10:28)

Followers of Christ through the ages have felt that tug at our hearts, have felt that call. We follow -- but many of us have longed to follow more, even to own nothing if that were asked of us. Through the ages, some followers of Christ have even set that as their goal: to own nothing in this world. And many of us have followed, but have been held back by other concerns.

When we feel the call tug at us, why is it we do not fully follow the call to do all we wish to give in service? Have we imagined that we must become beggars who cannot financially support ourselves and our families in order to do God's work?

We read that one of the times Jesus met his disciples after he was raised from the dead, he found them out in their boat, fishing with their nets, having caught nothing all night. But hadn't they "left everything" to follow Jesus? Where did the boat and net come from? These were fishers, and here they still were with boats and nets after they "left everything." They may have left the boat behind while they were on land. But they had traveled often by boat during Jesus' ministry, and the boat was large enough to hold a good number of people.

Did they really leave behind their boats and nets behind to follow Jesus? On the one hand: sure they did. Fishermen don't spend their days travelling town to town and healing people by the authority Christ has granted them, or baptizing, or teaching about God's goodness, love and forgiveness. Neither would fishermen take a boat into town with them to announce the coming kingdom of God. But they still had the boats and the nets.

One big change in their lives, when they followed Jesus, was that they went from being fishermen who followed God on the side, to followers of God who fished on the side. The focus of their life shifted. The meaning of their life changed. Earning a living wasn't their highest priority any more. When they said "we have left everything to follow you," they still had a way to earn their keep, make a living, get a meal, and move from place to place. But that was no longer what they lived for. They no longer organized their lives around that kind of work. They organized their lives around God's work.

We still feel Jesus' call to work with him in this world. The time has come for us to figure out how to do that here, now, in our time and place, in our generation. We feel the pull to complete the change that has begun in us: the change from being workers who are Christians to being followers of Christ who are workers. We need to find out how to make sure Christ's work is done. We know what he wants us to do. Every time we read certain passages of Scripture, we feel his call ringing through us, and our minds see clearly what we should be doing. It's time to find a way to do it. "Follow me." Can we turn away from worldly concerns long enough to do the task set before us? Enough of the misperceptions about whether we're allowed to own property; that was never the point. The point is what we live for, what drives our days, whether we get done the service that we know we have been called to perform.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Interpreting Tragedy: Rorschach Blots on World History

People are always trying to make sense of tragedy. Like the ambiguous Rorschach blots, what you bring to the table often colors your conclusions far more than what actually meets the eye. The human wish to see order -- and, particularly, the easiness of seeing what you are predisposed to see -- is especially visible at times like these.

In the wake of last year's tsunami, certain Muslim camps blamed the disaster on non-Muslims and moderate or apostate Muslims in the area. In the wake of this year's hurricane Katrina, I have heard an amazing array of explanations including a Jewish Zionist who claimed Katrina was God's judgment on the U.S. for turning against Israel over the Gaza strip issue, Muslims who claimed Katrina was an answer to their prayers that the U.S. might be hurt and wounded gravely, and someone within a Christian group claiming that Katrina was God's judgment on the decadence of New Orleans, particularly in its timing of interference with a self-styled "Decadence" celebration. It is likely enough that many of these comments came from "fringe" members of these groups; speaking in the case of the Christian, I'm in a position to notice that this was in fact a "fringe" situation and the person wasn't finding much support. I can't speak for other groups but wouldn't be too surprised if there were the same kind of "fringeness" about the comments.

With the current devastating earthquake near Kashmir -- and given the disputes between Hindus and Muslims over the ownership of that territory, and recent violent history, it's likely enough that the "God's judgment" scenario will be visited again. Of course, even if someone were sure this was God's judgment, either side of the dispute is free to claim that it is the other party's fault, or if their own fault then the fault of not beating the other side decisively enough soon enough. Contesting a region on a geological plate boundary may or may not enter the discussion of why this particular contested territory was visited by an earthquake.

Some things have struck me as most typical of all these interpretations:

1. An unquestioned assumption that there was a divine judgment involved;
2. An insistence that God's judgment addresses a certain dispute and endorses the speaker's own side of the dispute, no matter how implausible the tie might be to the dispute in question or the side of the dispute supported;
3. A complete lack of reflection that their own side might possibly have done anything wrong so that, if God's judgment were in fact visiting, it couldn't possibly be against their own group.

It is difficult to see how submerging New Orleans has anything to do with the Gaza strip. It's also difficult to see how it could possibly be a punishment on the city's decadence when Bourbon street and the French Quarter ("sin central", so to speak) was the one part of town that received particulary light damage. The most obvious reason for this, for those of us who visit New Orleans with any regularity or know the city's history, is that these parts of the city were the oldest parts of the city which were built above sea level instead of later behind levees and below sea level.

For Christians in the mainstream, the doom-mongering can distract attention from its right focus. Our foundation for discussing tragedy is Jesus' words on victims of tragedies contemporary with his earthly ministry: "Were they more worse sinners than the others? I tell you: No. But unless you repent, you will likewise perish."

Jesus insisted strongly that God's particular judgment on specific people or groups is not actually lurking behind every disaster -- a point which seems to escape many doomsayers. And neither is there going to be anyone who escapes the human situation of facing disaster at some point in our lives; if nothing else, we all face it at the time of death. Jesus did not say that a pure life or culture will keep disaster away; more like the world has a "condemned" sign hanging on it. Jesus did not direct us to blame the victims as especially deserving of punishment; based on his comments leading straight the other direction, our insistence on blaming the victims seems to be an exercise in missing the point. Jesus' message is for us to be right with God ourselves because, sooner or later, our own day will come. Given the unpopularity of that message, it's no wonder that we so often manage to miss the point.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Tolkien and the shadow of evil

I've written before on Tolkien's treatment of goodness. Tonight I'd like to glance at the other side of the coin: Tolkien's acknowledgment of evil. The evil wizards and the orcs and the explicitly evil elements are obvious enough in his works. But in Tolkien's writing, unlike many heroic epics, the heroes do not all simply live happily ever after. In Tolkien's reckoning, on October 6 of each year Frodo was visited by returning pain, likewise in March of each year, on the anniversaries of serious wounds he had taken. When Frodo returns to the Shire, he cannot take up his life again. Something similar had happened long years before to Celebrian, who was Elrond's wife, Galadriel's daughter, and Arwen's mother.

In Tolkien's earlier work, The Hobbit, Bilbo's adventures stay with him after his return, though not in a bad way at first. Bilbo spends much of the rest of his days in his study, writing, while the evil he has unwittingly brought back with him slowly grows on him. Frodo's darker adventures leave him at times haunted, and again after his return he spends much of his time in his study, writing.

As for Tolkien, after he returned from his own adventures in the Great War / World War I, we all know where and how he spent much of his time: in his study, writing. I've made a few searches and haven't found what I was looking for. But I'd be very curious if anything had happened to Tolkien on the dates he chose for Frodo's yearly visits of pain: March 13 and October 6.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Abortion, Pregnancy Transplants, and Artificial Wombs

A number of years ago I wrote some of the good folks of the American Medical Association, particularly some of them associated with the publication JAMA, regarding the feasibility of pregnancy transplants as an alternative to abortion. The replies I received made it clear that the recipients considered this to be the suggestion of a nutcase. I'm feeling an inch closer to vindicated now as we see discussions of technology heading in this direction.

Note that the pregnancy-transplant solution to unwanted pregnancies could address more than just the abortion-as-contraception scenario, but also the traditional "exceptions" for abortion such as when the life of the mother is in danger, or pregnancies due to rape where there's a chance that the pregnancy would be the tipping point in destroying the mother's ability to cope.

The author of the article linked here is a feminist, yet she is willing to admit that abortion is likely to be seen by future generations as barbaric, and that she has been disturbed by the photos showing the humanity of very young gestating children. She stops short of acknowledging that, in light of this, people are probably right when they oppose abortion-as-contraception here and now.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Comparative Religion: Beginning with Truth and Goodness

This is the first post in a series exploring world religions. Here I introduce my methods and goals

At the outset I have to ask myself, "What kind of fool would write about comparative religion?" For one thing, no one person can possibly know all there is to know about any one of the major religions, much less all of them. For another, every person already has his or her own unique beliefs, whether in favor of a particular religion, or in favor of neutrality, or in favor of hostility towards all religions, or even in favor of harmonizing them. But that is the human condition; we all share it. That does not excuse us from doing the best we can to learn the truth. Neither should it prevent us from appreciating what we see that is good. That is what I hope to accomplish here: to seek only truth and to appreciate all that is good, wherever it may be found. Only from there can we make any rational approach to our own beliefs, which are nothing more or less than what we think to be true and good.

But right at the outset I've begged the questions about "truth" and "goodness." If we are to keep going with this effort at all with "truth" and "goodness" being our guideposts, we must have some clear ideea what these mean.

I know there have been endless conversations on these definitions, but for now let's take some basic working definitions. Let "truth" mean "that which is in agreement with reality." Reality may be differently perceived; those perceptions which are closer to reality are closer to truth by definition. For those who say there is no truth, that amounts to saying there is no reality, which is nonsense. (If we're going to make any progress at all, we can't be too shy about throwing out nonsense. As anyone who has studied religion already knows, there's a lot of nonsense out there.) But in this effort, I'd like to be doubly on my guard against being hasty or careless because those exact problems are so plentiful in "comparative religion" studies. People of all camps (single-religion, anti-religion, neutrality, harmonization) have often buried entire armies of opposing strawmen without managing to learn a thing in the process. I'd rather not throw out anything which contains any germ of truth, no matter how small. After all, if it's truth that we're seeking, we can't afford to be careless about it.

The more moderate view from those who question the idea of "truth" is simply that we have trouble perceiving reality accurately. Any book on the history of science or the history of religion should give adequate proof that we have long struggled to learn of reality, and have often failed or been badly mistaken. We can expect that our grandchildren's generation will shake their heads and smile at the ignorance of our times, just as we do over certain pages in our own history books. It is relatively easy for us to perceive the reality of things in front of us -- the keyboard under my fingers, the screen on which my words are displayed, the chair on which I sit. The reality that "there is a keyboard under my fingers as I type this" -- is beyond rational dispute. There's no well-founded doubt that it's true. But as things are further from our direct perception, as we come to depend more on the increasingly remote implications of our perceptions, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern reality and increasingly questionable whether we are certain of the truth.

It's easy to get ahead of myself here and start analyzing various religions along lines of truth, perception, and distance from observation (speculation). I'll look at all that in due course (not in the present post!). But so far I've only looked at one of the questions begged at the outset: truth. The matter of "goodness" deserves the same attention.

"Goodness" is a trickier concept than "truth" for reasons we've already discussed: "goodness" is a quality, not a direct perception but an evaluation. For the keyboard under my fingers, the simple fact of its existence is all we need to know about it to be sure of its reality. "Goodness" can be evaluated in different ways. For my keyboard, all I want of it is usefulness. But for something else -- for example, the tree outside my window -- it has no real use to me but I would consider its loss to be more of a loss than if I had to replace this keyboard. This particular tree is of no real use to me, so why do I value it? For its life? For its beauty? Because it is an expression of whatever power has set the world in motion? And are these necessarily three different things, or possibly three different ways of asking the same question? Is the tree's life, its beauty, and the power that set the world in motion all from the same source? All that is separate from whether the tree actually has a "purpose" in the same way in which the keyboard was designed with a purpose in mind.

The same questions can be asked of persons. Does mankind have an inherent beauty? An inherent purpose? Is there a creator whose purposes for us are rightly considered in the assessment of whether we are "good"?

I intend to leave these questions open for the time being as we explore further. It's my purpose not to miss anything good; and if "good" has different kinds of meanings, it would be a pity to miss any of them. For discussion of what is "good" we will keep an eye to purpose and usefulness, to nature and harmony with nature, to different kinds of value. But if "goodness" implies a quality that is desirable for some reason, then one possible key to understanding "goodness" is desire, or desirability. That opens other questions such as: whose desires?

Some of the subjects we've touched on here have side-paths left unexplored for today such as reality and illusion, or the relationships between different ways of seeing "goodness". But this will do for today. More to come.

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
(J.R.R. Tolkien)